Chapter Seven of Under the Goblin Trees
Campaign adaptation by Thomas Kelly
We travelled not some far way into the darkness of the wood that dim lit morning before Ivan indicated we ought to leave off from the road. His keen eyes followed the track of the goblin messenger. Ivan dismounted and examined the prints and trail markings before assuring us, “Our path leaves the main trail here and begins to climb this rise.”
Sir Belvenore and Sir Merciful huffed and objected. “Well known that one who leaves the road never finds his way out of the forest,” Sir Merciful shook his helmeted head.
“There’s no fear of that,” Ivan assured us. “So long as I am with you, we will not lose ourselves in this wood, even if we do lose the way.”
Cirilli spoke like an oracle, “The forest will direct our path. Pay attention to the trees. They direct us now to Nyssa’s oak.” Something about the way she spoke troubled me more than the words themselves. It was not the way a proper daughter of our Lady of Changing Seasons said things. I gave her a disapproving scowl, but she turned her head, pretending not to notice my displeasure.
Belvenore and Merciful wanted to stay with the trail, but none of us said we would stay with them. They feared becoming hopelessly lost in the forest without Ivan’s assistance even if they remained on the road. Moreover, their oaths to their lord bound them to protect us and guide us as they could.
Ivan turned his attention back to studying the prints. After some few minutes of peering about in the near darkness he concluded, “This path is well-trodden. I see many goblin prints, coming and going, and also the marks of hooves. And here are the prints of a great dog … nay, not a dog, but a wolf, methinks.”
We left the road to ascend the rise. Sure as the woodman’s word, a worn path threaded through the trees. We continued most of an hour before overtaking a traveler walking in the same direction. By the scarce morning dimness, I recognized him as one of the goblin servants of Wulurich’s estate, for he wore the same uniform of trousers, vest, cap, and overcoat as the other goblin servants. “No doubt the goblin messenger of the blue door,” I said to the others.
The lad doffed his cap and said, “My lords and my lady. How have you come to this path? Have you lost your way?” Then he added with malicious grin, “Or are you seeking the way to Witch Tree Tower?”
“Both. We have lost our way, and we seek the Witch Tree Tower,” I said. “Know you the way?”
“Oh, most verily, your servant William knows the way, for I walk this path to and from Witch Tree Tower every day, but rarely do I meet another traveler,” the goblin said.
I dismounted and offered William a drink from a flask, and he most greedily drank it dry before handing it back. Then I asked, “What compels you to walk to and from this tower every day?”
“The Lord Baron Wulurich compels me. Every day I must carry a most urgent message from his homely house to Witch Tree Tower, then turn about and walk back home, and a weary business it is,” William admitted.
“What is the message?” I asked, “And to whom do you deliver it?” I handed him a thick slice of bacon from my provisions, and he gulped it down in two bites before replying.
“To Sir Bartimaeus, the captain of the tower. Every day I must walk these leagues from the baron’s house to the Witch Tree Tower, and say unto Sir Bartimaeus, ‘Thus says the lord baron, “Stay thy hand good sir for yet another day.”’ And a weary business it is, day after day. For the message never changes.”
I offered William an apple from my bag, and he swallowed it most greedily. Then I asked, “And how much further along until we come upon Witch Tree Tower? For we seek lodging with Sir Bartimaeus.”
“Not much further. Hurry on along this very path and you will surely arrive before the sun has set,” William said. With that, the goblin rose to continue on his way, but Ivan objected, “We cannot let him go and warn the tower of our arrival, nor can we let him return to Wulurich, for he will surely betray us.”
An alarmed expression of sudden terror passed over William; his eyes flitted fearfully from face to face. He saw no expression of mercy. He began to stammer, drawing back from us, “Never my lords, would I ever … never speak a word to a single soul.” He clutched at the hilt of the short dagger strapped to his side.
“Don’t worry lad,” I said gently. I laid a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “We’re not going to hurt you. We are only going to take you with us—since you know the way so well—to guide us there and back again.”
William furrowed his brow as if considering this, and his ears twitched involuntarily. He peeled his lips back into a fangy smile and bowed, “I am at your service father.”
Bruin objected, “We didn’t agree to this. You’re going to bring bad luck down on us.”
“Tut-tut,” I replied dismissing the superstitions of the Rhenee. “There is no such thing. The priests of Rudd say we make our own luck, good or bad, with our words and our deeds.”
William proved himself a most apt and able guide. Like a well-mannered servant, he spoke only when spoken to. I asked him, “Who dwells with Sir Bartimaeus; what manner of man or creature?”
William crinkled his face as if he smelled something fowl, and he replied, “Goblins. Mostly goblins. And not the civilized or educated sort, like me. Trolls, too, I’ve seen.”
This was grave news to all of us, and we exchanged many worried glances. The baroness had said nothing about goblins or trolls. I began to feel serious reservations about this entire adventure. William trotted and ran along on his short legs to keep pace with our horses until at last he was so winded that I had mercy on him and offered to let him ride with me. “Not at all,” he objected between gasping breaths. “Not at all.”
“Nonsense,” Ivan insisted. “You shall ride with me and spare your breath.” The redheaded woodsman reached down from atop his steed and grabbed William up by the back of his coat and lifted him up onto his steed. The goblin’s face froze with fear. I realized that he had, perhaps, never before ridden. William survived his first few mounted hours, but when we drew near to the clearing of the tower, he begged to be let down. He stumbled about comically on stiff legs like a staggering drunken man. Recovering his equilibrium, he said, “The yonder light that shines ahead is the glade of the Witch Tree, and at the center of the glade stands the tower.”
The Tower of the Tree
So it was. The narrow winding woodland path opened abruptly into a broad space beneath a gray winter sky. We squinted in the comparatively bright light of early afternoon. Snow fell, and the ground had turned white with it. At the center of the glade stood a broad, well-crafted tower, fit together of unhewn stone and mortar, standing three stories high and ringed with battlements. A patrol of goblins circled about the crown of the tower. Smoke from fires rose into the snowy sky. Over the tops of the battlements rose the crown of a great oak—the Witch Tree. The sight of its branches, still clad in winter leaves, whispering in the breeze, filled me with the same enchantment that the lady Nyssa herself cast with her presence. All my misgivings and doubts vanished, and I felt ready at once to face goblins, trolls, and anything else that might stand in our way to rescue that beautiful tree.
As we crossed the glade, I imagined how we might appear to the guards stationed on the battlements: the woodsman Ivan O’Micksaliks with his long red braids trailing behind him as his fine charger broke into a gallop, his studded armor, and mighty axe; Big Bruin in shining plate armor, an enormous metal shield strapped on his back, an unwieldy great sword strapped to his steed with a brace of spears; Sir Belvenore and Sir Merciful under their heavy armor, long swords, and bows, the fearsome insignia of the Watch painted on their shields. Then, of course, came Myron, a terror in his own way, and Cirilli Finla who, for all the world, looked more and more to my eyes like a witch of the old faith than a shopkeeper’s girl from Orlane. Trailing behind us trotted little William, huffing and puffing to keep pace.
Having formulated no better plan, we rode up to the gatehouse. Taking charge, I dismounted and knocked upon the heavy wooden double gates of the tower’s gatehouse. “Hello? We are travelers, set out from Wulurich’s Lodge, now lost in the woods.”
Goblins thrust their heads out through windows and peered over the tower battlements. “Go away!” one shouted at us in the common tongue. Then they saw William. “What’s the word today William?” a goblin captain called from on top of the tower.
William made a short bow to no one in particular before reciting his message, “Say unto Sir Bartimaeus, ‘Thus says the lord baron, “Stay thy hand good sir for yet another day.”’”
“And what about them William?” the captain gestured toward us. “What do they want?”
“They come from Lord Wulurich’s estate seeking lodging for the night,” William replied helpfully.
The goblins on the tower broke into laughter. Their captain cackled, “We’ll put them to bed soon enough. Let them have it boys!”
The guardians shouted and squealed with delight. A sudden volley of arrows and stones came pelting down from the tower’s slits and battlements. The noise and furious attack alarmed the horses. They screamed and reared up, dumping a few riders to the ground. More than one of our mounts felt the sting of a goblin’s dart. We made a hasty retreat back to the line of the trees. The goblins screamed and laughed gleefully, “How did they like that William? Tell them to come back if they want a second serving!”
Back in the cover of the trees, we recollected and attended to our wounds. William grimaced apologetically, “Not civilized folk at all. Nothing worse than goblins, is there?”
No one suffered any serious injuries, and that was remarkable enough in itself, but the embarrassment of the hasty retreat and the jeers from the goblins had stung good Sir Belvenore and Sir Merciful more deeply than any goblin’s dart could have pierced. If they had come along as reluctant participants before, now they were completely committed to avenge their wounded honor.
A Faltering Assault
We held a war council to consider strategies. Belvenore said, “Sir Merciful and I are trained in siege warfare. We could surely undermine the tower if we had the implements to do so and the men to protect us.” Likewise, if we had siege ladders or engines, we might have laid a proper siege, but of course we had none. If we had a burglar with us, we might send him to scale the tower by night, creep through the gatehouse, and unbar the gate, but we had no burglar. Various other stratagems were considered and dismissed until the knights agreed that the proper approach involved fashioning a ram with which to burst the gate.
Ivan employed his axe and a length of rope to fashion a makeshift ram, but by the time he had completed this task, the afternoon had grown late. Ivan, Bruin, and the two knights were to bring the battering ram against the gate while protecting themselves beneath the cover of their shields if necessary. Myron pointed out that the men swinging the ram could not simultaneously hold their shields aloft, but Sir Belvenore and Bruin felt they would be able to effectively handle both the ram and the shield. Ivan, who carried no shield, seemed less confident. Predictably, this plan failed almost at once. Our brave warriors found the ram too heavy for them to effectively employ. They only managed to tap the door once or twice with their unwieldy log before the rain of arrows, darts, and spears began. Myron did his best to assist them by using spells to smite at the defenders, but he quickly exhausted his repertoire of magic. They were all forced to abandon the ram and retreat, pursued by the raucous laughter of the defenders. Fortunately for all of us, they fell back just before the flaming oil came out. All four men suffered bruises, cuts, and punctures.
By then, winter’s early dusk had drawn near. We agreed to pull back into the woods, make camp, and launch a fresh assault by first light. In no time at all Ivan had a warm fire built, and he began to assemble a snug shelter roofed with heavy fir and boughs. In the midst of all these preparations, William slipped away from us. Whether he had crept away to join the miserable troop in the tower or taken the road back to the lord baron’s house we did not know. We were sorry to have lost him, for we supposed he would do us some mischief. Bruin reminded us that it was bad luck to let a devil boy live.
I did my best to sleep. Wrapped in furs under the shelter I felt snug and warm. Despite my concerns about William and my fears of a midnight, goblin ambush, I fell soundly asleep. Late in the night, Bruin shook me awake and said with concern, “A wolf just passed by. I saw his eyes and the shadow of his shape just beyond the light of the fire.” I blinked the sleep from my eyes and stared into the darkness. Sir Merciful and Ivan were already up, adding wood to the fire.
“Is the wolf still there?” I asked. Bruin did not know.
Had the lord baron had taken the shape of a wolf and come to attack us in the night? The fire blazed up, and our eyes searched the darkness.
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